Discursive Psychology: Theory, Method and Applications - Sally Wiggins 2017


About the Author

Sally Wiggins

is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning, Linköping University, Sweden. Previously, she was based in the School of Psychological Sciences and Health, University of Strathclyde, Scotland, for 12 years. She has co-edited two books (Critical Bodies and Discursive Research in Practice) and written numerous book chapters and journal articles featuring discursive psychology as the analytical approach. Her research focuses on the social interactional processes around eating, particularly during family mealtimes. This work has begun to examine the ways in which appetite, food preferences and gustatory pleasure/disgust are enacted and consequential for children and parents in everyday mealtime situations.


The aim of this book is to demystify discursive psychology (DP): from the theoretical principles on which it is based, to the method of how to ’do’ DP and use it in different ways. It is designed to be a practical and accessible guide, cutting through difficult theory and providing a clear account of the analytic processes. It offers basic starting points and discusses more advanced issues. It is therefore aimed at students and researchers at all levels, from undergraduate through to postgraduate and beyond. It will provide the scaffolding as you develop your understanding and skills, and allow you to progress at your own speed. There will be activities along the way, to help you practise on your own. DP should not be regarded as difficult or for expert researchers. With a little time and care, anyone can use discursive psychology.

The politics of writing a book

I write this book as someone who has been involved in the field of discursive psychology for some time. I am not so established as to have been there at the very start, nor am I so fresh as to not be aware of the political manoeuvring and pot shots from critics in all directions during the intervening years. I was fortunate enough to undertake my doctoral research under the supervision of Jonathan Potter at Loughborough, with Charles Antaki, Mick Billig, Derek Edwards and many others just an office away. I have also been, and continue to be, inspired and supported by many others in discursive and interactional research across the world. I do not consider myself to be particularly politically motivated. Those who know me would be hard-pushed to define me as radical. And yet this book feels like something of a political argument. I have witnessed the various criticisms from many angles: from cognitive psychologists who do not consider discursive work to be anything more than ’just talk’ and subjective interpretation, to phenomenologists who argue that we are missing the very nature of what it means to be human, to other discourse analysts who argue that we are neglecting the big issues and have been hoodwinked by the conversation analysts, and finally to conversation analysts, who wonder why we aren’t doing CA when we’re almost there anyway.

My stance is that while I have endeavoured to be even-handed in my treatment of various issues, I have also aimed to provide a clear and practical guide to DP research, to enable it to continue to flourish and develop. This means that I am fairly prescriptive in places: I have erred on the side of being specific and detailed to provide the ’scaffolding’ which I mention in the book. Some readers may find it too prescriptive. They may be disheartened at the inclusion of the stages of analysis of DP, for example, as set out in Chapter 6. They risk turning DP into a formula, restricting creativity and synthesis across different forms of discourse analysis. They also possibly undermine the skilled way in which established researchers can read a short extract of data and produce a brilliant and eloquent analysis, while the rest of us are still figuring out what all the transcription symbols mean. So yes, there is a risk. But I think it a risk worth taking. We need some scaffolding to support new researchers — whether undergraduate students with one class on discourse analysis or postdoctoral researchers tasked with the discursive analysis of six months’ worth of data — to ensure the growth and development of work in this area.

Politics also bubble under the surface of the data examples I use throughout the book. These are infused by my own research interests in eating practices and family mealtimes. It is my book, after all. But it might seem that using examples from family mealtimes are trivial or banal, that they don’t really tackle the important things, like inequalities, poverty, conflict, prejudice, death and illness. Or perhaps worse, that these kinds of issues are inherent in food and eating, and yet still I ignore or gloss over these and focus instead on the features of mundane interaction. But perhaps food and eating is in some ways more fundamental than any of those; that if we don’t eat, nothing else is possible. So yes, family mealtimes are just one small aspect of life, and no, we don’t all have children. But we all start out as children and we all need to eat. And for those reasons alone, I think it worth researching.

How to use this book

The book is in three parts: the first deals with the theoretical side of DP and how it stands in relation to four other discourse analytical approaches. This should give you an understanding of what DP is ’about’ and when you might use it. The second part deals with the practical aspects of DP: how to actually do it, from the stages of deciding on a research question, to collecting and analysing data, and to presenting your work in different formats. The third part provides some ’what next’ issues; inspiration from some of the early and contemporary work in DP, as well as some ways in which we might consider the application of either theory or practice.

Each chapter stands alone as a complete unit, so you can dip in and out, in any order. It may be that you only need guidance on understanding the different forms of discourse analysis, so Chapter 2 will show you how these differ both theoretically and in terms of analysing data. Or you may have been given some data extracts to analyse using DP for an assignment, and so Chapter 6 will help you there. Chapter 1 provides the main theoretical and conceptual structure of DP, so that will help you to make sense of the rest of the book, but it can be challenging in places if you are new to some of these concepts. You might find it useful to skim through Chapter 1, then come back to it again once you’ve had a chance to work through some of the practical chapters in Part 2 of the book. Remember, becoming confident and competent with DP is a skill and it won’t happen overnight. You need to spend a little time working through some of the core principles of DP and applying these in practice. Then, once you’ve done that, you might find yourself wanting to dig a little deeper into some of the issues raised by Chapter 1.

Throughout the book, references within the text have been kept to a minimum. This was a deliberate move, to keep the text uncluttered and to avoid overwhelming you with names and dates. In terms of learning, I tend to argue that less is more; I have given a couple of references at the end of each chapter, and a few scattered throughout. You will, however, find a whole heap of references in Chapter 9, where I overview DP research in different areas.

The book contains features to help you apply the theory and methods to your own research, whether you have just one lecture on DP and don’t ’get it’, a coursework assignment to do by this time last Tuesday, or your dream PhD project. There are boxes throughout each chapter which provide: discussion points on key issues, checklists, brief activities, hints and tips, and student reflections. There is a glossary at the end of the book, covering a range of key concepts and ideas in discursive research to help you to learn the jargon. There is also a FAQ (frequently asked questions) section providing suggested responses to some of the questions that you (or your colleagues) may have about DP.

The book is assisted at various points by a short piece of family mealtime data, which was recorded especially for the purposes of teaching students about DP. The full video clip (around four minutes) can be accessed at: It is used in Chapter 2 to demonstrate the difference between five forms of discourse analysis, in Chapter 5 to illustrate the transcription process, and Chapter 6 to provide a worked example of DP analyses. You might use it to practise your own transcription, coding and analysis skills, or practise using the discursive devices in Chapter 7.

Most of all, have fun. There are few approaches that we can so readily apply to our own lives, to practise while we’re listening to other people or engaged in social interaction. Let’s see how far we can go.


To those who, like me, always read the acknowledgements page first, here is a glimpse into the machinery behind this book. It is, in many ways, the culmination of around 20 years of being immersed in discursive psychology (DP) research and teaching. I was introduced to DP by Nick Hopkins in my final year as an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Dundee. I still have my set texts for that class (Billig, 1987, and Potter & Wetherell, 1987; bought for £13.95 each in October 1996 at Blackwell’s bookshop on campus), with notes scribbled enthusiastically (pencil, of course) in the margins. So those of you who are still studying, keep your mind open and be kind to your tutors. You never know where new ideas will take you. My thanks therefore go first to my main tutors in DP: Nick Hopkins, Jonathan Potter and Derek Edwards. There are many others who helped along the way.

Thanks to those who helped to make this book happen:

To Michael Carmichael for getting me started on this adventure and to Luke Block and Lucy Dang for seeing me through to the end. Your encouragement, unwavering confidence and patience were like good coffee; they kept me focused and made me want to write. You also have three of the coolest names in publishing.

To those who provided guidance, FAQ suggestions or support: Adrian Coyle, Stephen Gibson, Gillian Hendry, Emily Hofstetter, Judith Horne, Bogdana Humǎ, Ryan Kelly, Eric Laurier, Jessica Lester, Abi Locke, Clare MacMartin, Robert McQuade, Jane Montague, Jonathan Potter, Sarah Riley, Sarah Seymour-Smith, Liz Stokoe, Margie Wetherell and Sue Widdicombe. Stephen Gibson, Clare MacMartin and Sarah Riley deserve particularly fond thanks for their detailed and critical comments on some of the draft chapters. You improved the book in many ways, though any remaining flaws are, of course, my own.

To the Scottish family who so kindly offered to record their meal and let me use the video as ’data’ for the book, may your food always fire your rockets.

To all the undergraduate and postgraduate students who I have tutored over the years, I hope I made some sense. To those who really ’got’ DP and, even better, were as excited about it as I am: you made it all worthwhile.

And so to home. I wrote most of this book into the night at my beloved writing bureau. Thanks to Kate Bush, First Aid Kit, Florence & the Machine and London Grammar for the soundtrack, and to Lucy for sleeping by my feet and taking me for walks. To Mum and Dad, for providing an unexpected writing retreat in my old bedroom and for the many, many times that you cared for me when I needed to rest, and cared for the boys and dog when I needed to write. To Phil and my extended family, for all your support and for coping very well despite having an academic in the family. To Beth and Rach, for showing me that every obstacle can seem daunting at first, but that we can do amazing things when we help each other. To Angus and Callum, for filling my days with love and laughter, the comfort of daily routines and a good excuse to always bake. You’re both still the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever undertaken, and the best reasons I have for doing anything. Sorry for hogging the my laptop and working so often. This book is proof that I wasn’t watching Minecraft videos on YouTube, as you may have suspected. To H, for all and everything. Thank you for always believing in me. It is time for new adventures now.